You are browsing the archive for banks.

Weekly Audit: Why Do Deficit Hawks Hate Social Security?

8:27 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, Social Security advocates learned something they had long suspected. Arguments for cutting Social Security aren’t really about economics or the deficit. They’re all about waging war on social services.

In short, some very prominent policymakers are out to dismantle Social Security on ideological grounds. The most recent example of this view comes from Alan Simpson, a former Republican Senator from Wyoming who now serves as co-Chair of President Barack Obama’s Federal Debt Commission. Earlier this summer, Simpson was caught on video spreading absurd lies about Social Security, but his latest outburst explains why he’s been so willing to distort the facts. Simpson simply hates Social Security.

As Joshua Holland highlights for AlterNet, Simpson fired off a nasty email to Ashley Carson, who advocates for elderly women, in which he referred to the most successful social program in U.S. history as "a milk cow with 310 million tits."

Social Security is doing just fine

But Simpson has a lot of power on the Debt Commission, which is expected to recommend that Congress reduce the deficit by cutting social programs in a report this year. But as Holland notes, Social Security isn’t in trouble:

Social Security is in fine shape. It’s got a surplus that will run out in 2037, but even if nothing were to change by then, it could still continue to pay out 75 percent of scheduled benefits seventy-five years from now, long after the surplus disappears, and those benefits would still be higher than what retirees receive today.

What’s more, as William Greider notes for The Nation, Social Security has never added one cent to the federal budget deficit. According to the law that created the program, Social Security never can. Targeting Social Security in order to fix the deficit is like invading Iraq to fight Al-Qaeda. The issues are not related.

Raising the retirement age robs workers

The Debt Commission is likely to recommend raising the retirement age—the age at which Social Security benefits begin to be paid out. But as Martha C. White notes for The Washington Independent, it’s a "solution" that simply robs low-income workers of their tax money. Everybody pay Social Security taxes when they work, and when they retire, they receive federal support. If you don’t live long enough to actually retire, you don’t get any benefit from Social Security.

"The hardship of raising the retirement age falls disproportionately on low-income workers who work in physically demanding professions, jobs they may not be able to continue through their seventh decade. … Moreover, though the average lifespan has increased since Social Security’s creation, those extra years aren’t enjoyed equally by all Americans. Overall, Americans are living about 7 years longer. But the poorest 20 percent of Americans are living just two years longer."

Raising the retirement age, in other words, disproportionately hurts the poor—the very people Social Security is supposed to help most.

Subprime scandal 2.0

So who would pick up the slack if Social Security were to be cut? The same crooked Wall Street scoundrels who brought us the financial crisis. If the government cuts back on retirement benefits, the financial establishment can step in and manage a bigger piece of the retirement pie. The more we learn about the financial mess, the less we should want to see our retirement money controlled by bigwig financiers. Truthout carries a blockbuster new investigative report by ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger that reveals a new, multi-billion-dollar subprime scam engineered by the financial elite.

We’ve known about Wall Street’s subprime shenanigans for some time, but the report reveals that banks were essentially selling their own products to themselves in order to create the illusion that people really wanted lousy mortgages. It’s called "self-dealing," and it’s supposed to be illegal.

Subprime Disaster, meet Mortgage Nightmare

Here’s how the scam worked: Wall Street crammed thousands of mortgages into securities, then sliced and diced those securities into new products called CDOs. Those CDOs, in turn, were divided into different "buckets" and sold to investors. The riskiest buckets paid out the most money to investors, but were the most likely to take losses if the underlying mortgages ever went bad. As the housing bubble grew more and more out-of-control, investors became wary of these risky buckets, and stopped buying them.

Wall Street banks were still making a killing from the packaging and sale of everything else, though, so they devised a plan to get rid of some risky bits: they’d buy them up themselves, without telling anybody. A bank would create a CDO called, say, Mortgage Nightmare CDO. Then it would create a separate CDO, called, say, Subprime Disaster CDO. Subprime Disaster would buy up a risky bucket from Mortgage Nightmare, creating the illusion to the market that banks were still able to sell off risky mortgage assets without any trouble, even though the bank was basically just selling garbage to itself.

That illusion propped up the prices of these risky assets and created more revenue for the tricky bankers who sold them, and plump, short-term profits for the banks. It also strongly encouraged other bankers to issue lousy mortgages to the public, since those loans could be packaged into lousy CDOs and score short-term profits for Wall Street’s schemers.

Ultimately, this scheming resulted in a multi-billion-dollar disaster for Wall Street, which taxpayers ended up footing the bill for. Anybody want to see that happen with Social Security?

Social programs did not cause the deficit

As Seth Freed Wessler notes for ColorLines, deficit hawks’ emphasis on social programs is at odds with the factors that actually created the deficit. The Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bank bailouts are the big-ticket items when it comes to government revenues and expenses. Yet deficit hawks in Congress have been refusing to extend paltry unemployment benefits or food stamps to the people hit hardest by the recession. And pretty soon they’re going to go after Social Security too.

In reality, the deficit is only a problem if investors are afraid that the government will default on its debt. Markets measure this worry with interest rates—high rates mean investors are worried, low rates mean they are not. Right now, interest rates on government bonds are at their lowest in decades. With the recession dragging on and the recovery weakening, now would be a great time for the government to spend more money to create jobs and help those knocked out of work.

Instead, the policy debate features cranky old men whining about 310-million-titted cows.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Congress Must Get Tough On Wall Street

8:38 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Congress returns from its April recess this week with financial reform at the top of its to-do list. With millions of Americans still bearing the brunt of the worst recession in 80 years, Congress needs to start protecting our economy from Wall Street excess, and repair the shredded social safety net that has allowed the Great Recession to exact a devastating human cost.

Big banks are an economic parasite

In an excellent multi-part interview with Paul Jay of The Real News, former bank regulator William Black explains how the financial industry has transformed itself into an economic parasite. Black explains that banks are supposed to serve as a sort of economic catalyst—financing productive businesses and fueling economic growth. This was largely how banks operated for several decades after the Great Depression, because regulations had ensured that banks had incentives to do useful things, and barred them from taking crazy risks.

The deregulatory movement of the past thirty years destroyed those incentives, allowing banks to book big profits by essentially devouring other parts of the economy. Instead of fueling productive growth, banks were actively assaulting the broader economy for profit. None of that subprime lending served any economic purpose. Neither do the absurd credit card fees banks charge, or the deceptive overdraft fees they continue to implement.

As Matt Taibbi explains in an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now!, banks didn’t just cannibalize consumers. They also went directly after local governments, bribing public officials to ink debt deals that worked wonderfully for the banks, and terribly for communities. In Jefferson County, Ala., J.P. Morgan Chase helped turn a $250 million sewer project into a $5 billion burden for taxpayers. The deal generated nothing of value for either citizens or the economy, but J.P. Morgan Chase was still able to line the pockets of its shareholders and executives. This kind of behavior was illegal, but the transactions involved were complex financial derivatives, which are not currently subject to regulation. To this day, nobody at J.P. Morgan Chase has been prosecuted for bribery or corruption.

Congress set to avoid tough regulations

There is a clear need for Congress to enact some firm restrictions against risky and predatory bank activities. But at the behest of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Congress is doing its best to avoid inserting any hard terms in legislative language, instead leaving the specifics to federal regulators to work out. As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, this is an exercise in futility. Regulators already have the power to impose more stringent rules on nearly every arena of Wall Street business that matters (derivatives are a very noteworthy exception). If they wanted to fix things, they could do it without Congressional help. The trouble is, the financial sector has polluted most of the regulatory agencies, so that many regulators now act more like lobbyists for the banks they regulate, rather than law enforcers. Indeed, as I note for AlterNet, the top bank regulator in the U.S. spent over a decade lobbying for the nation’s largest banks before taking up his current job. If Congress doesn’t establish firm rules, regulators under future administrations would be free to simply undo any measures that the current agencies actually implement.

Megabanks equal mega risks

As Stacy Mitchell illustrates for Yes! Magazine, most of the problems in the financial sector are connected to the size of our banking behemoths. Big banks have enormous power—if they fail, the economy goes off a cliff. As a result, any responsible government wouldn’t allow any of our megabanks to actually fail. But knowing that the government will protect them from any true catastrophes, big banks take bigger risks—if the risk pays off, they get rich, if it backfires, taxpayers will suck it up. That puts the interests of big banks at odds with the public interest, and creates an economy where bankers don’t try to finance useful projects with a safe and steady return, but instead back crazy bets that just might pay off.

You can’t fix that problem with regulations or idle threats of taking down a big bank when it gets itself in trouble—the markets won’t believe it, and the banks will still take risks. The only solution, Mitchell notes, is to break up the banks into smaller institutions that can fail without wreaking havoc on the economy.

Economic inequality weakening the economy

All of this ties into rampant economic inequality in the United States. Since the 1970s, conservatives have waged a constant battle on the social safety net, shredding protections for ordinary people, while empowering corporate executives to take advantage of them. In an illuminating blog post for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum highlights the fact that average income has only rose from about $20 an hour in 1972 to $23 an hour today. This isn’t because workers were slacking off—productivity has increased at roughly five times that rate. In other words, nearly all of the economic gains since the Nixon era have accrued to the wealthy.

When people don’t have access to strong and improving income, they finance things with credit. But if wages never actually improve, that debt becomes a significant burden. When an entire society finds itself overly indebted, people stop buying things, and the economy tanks. The predation in the American financial sector makes this problem even worse.

But political theatrics are even trumping efforts to provide relief to those hit hardest by the recession. Sens. Jim Bunning (R-KY) and Tom Coburn (R-NE) have blocked the extension of unemployment benefits twice in the past month. As Kai Wright emphasizes for ColorLines, that recklessness puts up to 400,000 Americans at risk of losing their unemployment checks. That’s a human tragedy—hundreds of thousands of people will have no way to pay the bills. It’s also bad for business, since those people won’t have any money to buy things that businesses produce. It is, in short, short-sighted economic insanity.

The economy is supposed to work for everybody, not just the rich, not just bankers. For that to happen, politicians have to establish meaningful regulations to make sure finance works for the greater good– and safety nets to make sure that anyone who falls through the cracks doesn’t see her life prospects permanently diminished.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Just Who is Obama fighting for?

8:46 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Progressives have waited a year for President Barack Obama to roll up his sleeves and fight for serious financial reform. Last week, he finally jumped in the ring, telling weak-kneed Senators to stand up to Wall Street and endorsing a critical ban on risky securities trading.

But while it was good to see Obama start throwing financial punches against the banks, this week he also started throwing them at workers. His recent rhetoric on implementing a spending freeze to reduce the deficit is an economic catastrophe in the making. It indicates that Obama is willing to sacrifice jobs to try and win over Republicans.

A spending freeze would kill jobs

A three-year spending freeze is crazy talk. It’s a right-wing ideologue’s dream that accomplishes nothing and drives millions of people out of work. John McCain campaigned on it during his 2008 presidential run. Our long-term deficit problems are tied to the rising cost of health care. If you want to fix the deficit, fix health care. In the short-term, there is no deficit problem. In fact, the U.S. fiscal position looks very good compared to many European nations.

As Matthew Rothschild notes for The Progressive, a spending freeze would kill any legislation to create jobs. With unemployment at 10%, the economy desperately needs another round of government spending to put people back to work. While the abrupt policy reversal is clearly a political ploy, voters care much more about results than they care about ideology. If Obama actively sabotages the job market to win over conservative deficit-hawks, he’ll be putting his political future in serious jeopardy.

And yet, as Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama’s recent, ramped-up rhetoric against banks still marks a significant change in tone. For most of the year, Obama hasn’t been involved in the financial reform debate at all, letting Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner capitulate to Wall Street and the politicians it owns. Benen highlights the end of Obama’s speech announcing his new banking rules on Jan. 21. Obama says:

So if these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have. And my resolve is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see soaring profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms claiming that they can’t lend more to small business, they can’t keep credit card rates low, they can’t pay a fee to refund taxpayers for the bailout without passing on the cost to shareholders or customers — that’s the claims they’re making. It’s exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary.

Saving the CFPA

Katrina vanden Huevel lays out Obama’s new financial reform agenda in a column for The Nation, praising a new $117 billion tax on the nation’s largest banks, a plan to cap overall bank size, and a proposal to ban high-risk trading by economically essential commercial banks (more on thatlater).

But vanden Huevel also rightfully denounces recent indications that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) may cave to lobbyist pressure and drop the measure to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) from the Senate’s financial reform bill.

The death of the CFPA would be a devastating blow to reform. Existing bank regulatory agencies see their primary job as protecting bank profits, meaning that any time the interests of the U.S. consumer conflict with those of bank balance sheets, the regulators have shafted consumers. Current federal banking regulators not only failed to enforce consumer protection laws, they went so far as to join the bank lobby in suing state regulators who were trying to protect households from predatory lending.

Fortunately, Obama isn’t taking Dodd’s bank lobby-induced cowardice sitting down. At Talking Points Memo, Rachel Slajda highlights a New York Times report that claims Obama met with Dodd and told him that the CFPA is a "non-negotiable."

Commercial banks are important

There’s a lot to like in Obama’s plan to bar commercial banks from participating in risky securities trading. As I emphasize in a piece for AlterNet, commercial banks form the backbone of the U.S. economy. They’re the institutions that accept your paychecks as deposits and keep businesses moving with loans. They also form the core of the economy’s payments system. Without commercial banks, nobody can pay anybody else for goods and services—the economy literally shuts down.

Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, regulators and lawmakers tore down the walls between commercial banking and riskier, complex securities trading, allowing these critical economic utilities to gamble in the capital markets like high-flying hedge funds. That kind of behavior puts the entire economy in jeopardy, and Obama’s proposal to end such behavior is very urgently needed.

But, as vanden Huevel and I both note, Obama’s cap on bank size is a little too timid. Obama indicated that he wants to prevent big banks from getting bigger going forward. That misses the point.

Bustin’ up "too big to fail"

Financial giants like Citigroup and Bank of America are already much too big and pose an economic threat. That’s why we refer to them as "too big to fail," and why the government had to devote over $17 trillion to saving them. Obama must cap bank size and break up our behemoth banks into companies that are small enough to fail without wreaking havoc on the economy. A good rule of thumb: 1% of gross domestic product.

Shouting down the bank lobbyists

In Mother Jones, David Corn emphasizes that Obama’s credentials as a serious reformer depend more on his policy maneuvering than on his rhetoric. While it has been extremely promising see Obama finally demanding something serious from the financial giants that taxpayers saved, he’ll have to shout down the bank lobbyists to secure meaningful economic—or political—gains. Corn writes:

If Obama aims to be widely regarded as a warrior for the middle class, he will have to take some mighty swings that cut through the clutter. Proclaiming ‘I am a fighter’ will not be enough. He will have to name his foes (financial institutions, insurance companies, Republicans, and perhaps recalcitrant Democrats) and truly exchange blows.

Obama’s stance on the CFPA alone should be enough to get the lobbyists into a lather, but he’ll have to keep up the fight on multiple fronts if he wants to protect our economy from the Wall Street recklessness that spurred millions of foreclosures and sent the unemployment rate soaring into double digits.

Last week, Obama finally told us he was willing to fight for economic change. Now it looks like he’s going to attack anyone who is looking for a job. Let’s hope he turns it around before it’s too late.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Too Big to Fail is Just Too Big

8:33 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Last week, President Barack Obama released key legislation designed to fight the banking industry’s too-big-to-fail problem. But Obama’s plan doesn’t actually address too-big-to-fail at all. It reinforces a broken system in which economically dangerous companies are bailed out whenever they drive themselves to the brink of failure.

If we want the economy to support all people, we have to break up the big banks and start treating the creation of good jobs as an economic priority on par with Wall Street rescues.

The editors of The Nation break the political debate over banking into three camps:

  • The first camp is composed of bank lobbyists, Republicans and conservative Democrats and wants to do nothing.
  • Camp two, endorsed by the White House and influential Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), would impose tougher regulations on too-big-to-fail banks to keep them from getting out of control.
  • The third camp wants to go even further: If a bank is too-big-to-fail, it is also too-big-to-regulate. Companies that pose a danger to the economy have to be split up into smaller firms that cannot induce economic ruin.

The Nation editors rightly see the third strategy as the most sensible. While the "break-up-the-banks" policy is being portrayed as a left-wing pipe dream by cable news networks, the policy actually relies on an age-old observation of conservative economists. Regulators make mistakes, and they often get co-opted by the very industries they are supposed to be supervising.

The practical policy is to impose structural limits on what activities banks can participate in and how big they can get. Just look at the list of high-profile supporters: former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Citigroup Chairman John Reed, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King. I don’t remember seeing any of those guys at the Iraq War protests.

Many of the regulatory blind spots that brought down the economy were obvious to some policymakers for years. Back in 1994, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) wrote an article for The Washington Monthly warning that derivatives trading was putting the economy in grave danger. Commodities Futures Trading Commission Chair Brooksley Born tried to take action on these derivatives, but was overruled by other regulators, including then-Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, and then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, now the top economic adviser to President Obama. Summers and Greenspan even convinced Congress to pass a law banning the regulation of key derivatives, including credit default swaps, which ultimately brought down insurance giant AIG.

Fifteen years after Dorgan’s article first ran, The Washington Monthly is featuring it again, along with a recent speech by Dorgan that details massive failures in Wall Street and Washington.

"We had regulators come to town in recent years and willfully boasted that they wanted to be blind as regulators," Dorgan says.

There are good elements of Obama’s plan to deal with too-big-to-fail. It gives policymakers the option of putting a too-big-to-fail institution through a special bankruptcy process administered by the executive branch, thus avoiding the problems created in bankruptcy court when Lehman Brothers failed. But the bad part is really bad: Officials would also have the option to provide unlimited bailouts to Big Finance via loans, guarantees and even asset purchases.

As Mike Lillis notes for The Washington Independent, some responsible Democrats like Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) have been objecting to this aspect of the legislation for months. Sherman, in fact, calls it "TARP on steroids," noting that the bank bailout at least came with some meager oversight and a limit on the program’s actual size.

The bank lobby is spending money like mad to maintain their stranglehold on the economy. Neither Congress or the administration will change course without intense public pressure. So it was very reassuring last week to see thousands of people protesting the annual meeting of top bank lobby group, the American Bankers Association. David Moberg chronicles the protest in a blog post for Working In These Times that covers speeches by both key union leaders and ordinary people facing foreclosure after watching their tax dollars go to the very bankers who wrecked the economy.

"There was broad agreement on anger at the banks for providing so little, if any, public benefit for the massive bail-out, and for so quickly returning to the greed and abuse that precipitated the crisis," Moberg writes.

Laura Flanders covers the protests for GRITtv, including video of protesters chanting "Bust up big banks!" In a roundtable discussion with Christina Clausen of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, George Goehl of National People’s Action and Rob Robertson of the Right To The City Alliance, Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi explains the overriding impotence of the regulations Congress is about to approve. Regulators will not be able to crack down on abusive derivatives, a full 8,000 of 8,200 banks will be exempt from Consumer Financial Protection Agency oversight, while the same agencies that screwed up heading into this crisis will be charged with preventing the next one.

"They’ve had sweeping powers to do whatever they wanted," Taibbi says. "They’ve had this regulatory power all along."

What we need are good jobs, and lots of them. Obama’s economic stimulus package has made tangible economic progress. It’s saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, and is clearly responsible for the turnaround in gross domestic product (GDP) we saw in the third quarter. But a full 17% of the workforce remains unable to find full-time work, as Julianne Malveux explains for The Progressive.

When Wall Street crashed in 1929 and unleashed the Great Depression, the government eventually stepped in as an employer-of-last-resort. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). built schools, parks, roads and bridges which still serve our communities today. Both the WPA and the CCC employed literally millions of people—in the 1930s. It’s a model that could work very well today.

As the current recession makes clear, ending too-big-to-fail and guaranteeing a good job for everyone in our society who wants one are the two most critical structural reforms our economy needs. Don’t let lawmakers forget it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Cheating Workers and Pampering CEOs

9:43 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Low-wage workers are struggling to navigate the current recession. A new study conducted by a team of academics reveals that the majority of workers at the bottom of the economic ladder have been shorted on their paychecks as recently as last week. But the compensation crisis looks very different on Wall Street, where excessive pay tied to risky activities helped set the economy on its crash course. Despite the resulting deep recession, pay for high-level U.S. financiers remains over-the-top, even as low wage workers struggle to navigate the downturn.

The U.S. has made a few gestures toward scaling back executive compensation for banks that it bailed out under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the rules have amounted to little more than window-dressing, according to a paper published last week by the Institute for Policy Studies. The paper’s authors, Sarah Anderson and Sam Pizzigati, found that ten of the 20 largest bailout banks have reported stock option compensation for 2009, and the top five executives at those companies have scored a full $90 million so far this year. That’s just through stock options. The number gets even more obscene if you include bonuses, salary and other payouts.

As Anderson and Pizzigati explain in a companion piece published in AlterNet, bank executives collected huge bonuses based on the profits from subprime loans during the housing bubble. Since subprime mortgages were more expensive than traditional loans, profits were high—until borrowers stopped being able to pay back their predatory, unaffordable debt. Suddenly the banks were all busted, but the executives had already made a killing.

Katrina vanden Huevel emphasizes in The Nation that the U.S. government doesn’t even try to tax this kind of income, much less regulate its connection to risk-taking. Billions of dollars in tax revenue are lost each year as financiers hide payouts in offshore tax havens, while on-the-books income from financial activities are taxed at arbitrarily low rates. Capital gains like stock price increases, for instance, are taxed at just 15%, while income from an ordinary paycheck is taxed at 35% for the wealthiest individuals.

While the U.S. dallies on executive pay, key leaders in Europe are moving to rein in risky compensation practices in the financial sector, as detailed in this video report over at The Real News. President Barack Obama will meet with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders of the G-20 in Pittsburgh later this month, and financial regulatory reform will be at the top of the agenda.

For ordinary workers, there are few positive signs in the current economy. The Washington Monthly‘s Steve Benen dissects the latest batch of unemployment numbers from the Labor Department. The good news is that the overall pace of layoffs seems to be abating. The bad news? The U.S. still lost a whopping 216,000 jobs in August. And broader measures of workplace woe are even worse. The unemployment rate does not include discouraged workers who have stopped looking for a job, and it doesn’t include those who want to work full-time but have to settle for part-time employment. That statistic actually declined slightly in July, giving some economists cause for optimism. But the metric soared again in August, reaching the highest level on record.

And unemployment is not the only problem workers face. Both Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect and Elizabeth Palmberg of Sojourners highlight a New York Times story by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, which details how low-wage workers are routinely cheated by their employers. According to a recent study, a full 68% of these workers report having experienced an illegal workplace abuse in the past week, such as being denied overtime pay or being required to work for less than minimum wage. On average, workers lost 15% of their weekly income as a result of this exploitation.

We have good laws to protect workers, but they just aren’t being enforced. Companies have successfully intimidated their employees into not reporting blatantly illegal pay practices. The best way to resolve this situation is to expand unionization and give workers a stronger voice in the workplace, making it safe to speak out against abuses. And the best way to expand unionization is to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, which lowers barriers to creating a union. But the legislative process has been delayed by a smear campaign organized by executives and managers claiming that unions, and not corporate elites, are the actual source of workplace coercion.

"It ought to make your blood boil—especially as people decry union thugs ‘intimidating’ people into joining unions when that doesn’t happen and most workers want to join a union," Fernholz writes.

The U.S. needs to get its economic priorities in order. We should be protecting low-wage workers from executive excess, not the other way around. President Obama will have an opportunity to coordinate that effort globally at the G-20 summit later this month. Let’s hope he doesn’t squander it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Audit: Four More Years of Bailout Ben

7:29 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

After Ben Bernanke allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to ravage the global economy and nearly destroy the U.S. financial system, President Barack Obama has decided he deserves another term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. (The UpTake has video of Obama’s announcement here.) As the Fed Chair, Bernanke has more economic power than any other person on the planet. By heading the committee that sets interest rates, he can control the economy’s rate of growth or contraction; as head regulator of the largest banks, Bernanke has more influence over the rules of the economic game than anyone else.

Why is the Bernanke reappointment a mistake? Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive turns to Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent democratic socialist from Vermont. Put simply, Bernanke is completely culpable for allowing an economic crisis to foment.

"Like the rest of the Bush administration, he was asleep at the wheel during this period and did nothing to move our financial system onto safer grounds," Sanders said.

Corporate media generally neglects to mention Bernanke’s role at the Fed prior to 2008, and instead credits him with stopping a second Great Depression. It’s true that the Fed has done everything possible to keep Wall Street from imploding, but Bernanke also repeatedly insisted that the subprime mortgage crisis would be "contained" as late as 2007 and made no plans for a situation that might prove worse than his rosy forecasts.

As William Greider explains for The Nation, it’s a bit too soon to celebrate our economic salvation at Bernanke’s hands. Small banks are failing at an alarming rate, job losses remain heavy and households are being squeezed by plummeting property values and growing credit card debt.

Greider emphasizes that Bernanke repeatedly bailed out financial giants without demanding anything in return, which bodes poorly for any future economic crisis. Kenneth Lewis remains Bank of America’s CEO, even though the company has needed $45 billion in taxpayer funds to date, and high-level Fed officials think Lewis may be guilty of securities fraud. On the one bailout where the Fed did assume ownership of the company and discharge it’s top-level management, AIG, the deal was structured to funnel no-strings-attached money to other Wall Street companies. Goldman Sachs raked in $12.9 billion from the arrangement. It’s one thing to funnel money to financial firms in the name of economic necessity. It’s quite another to allow executives at those companies to be paid like princes and subsidize their shareholders.

As economist James K. Galbraith discusses in a piece for The Washington Monthly, it’s not clear if Bernanke and Co. actually saved the economy. Even if the financial system gets back to normal functioning, that stability has been purchased with massive taxpayer support. In order to do just about anything involving finance in the United States, a company now needs a very explicit government seal of approval to convince investors that they’re safe to do business with. Just ask Colonial Bank, which failed earlier this summer after being denied bailout funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

But there has been secret support as well. Bernanke’s Fed committed over $2 trillion in emergency loans to keep the financial system from collapsing during the crisis, and has refused to tell the public who got the money, and on what terms. We don’t know who we saved, or at what the consequences of this massive bank support operation will be. Bernanke always believed that rescuing Wall Street would prevent major damage to the broader economy, but Galbraith questions whether the economy would be stronger if policymakers had focused more on direct aid to workers and homeowners, including an earlier, more robust economic stimulus package.

"Perhaps the right thing would have been less focus on saving banks, and much more on saving jobs, families, and homes."

Writing for In These Times, Roger Bybee profiles a new group called Americans for Financial Reform, which is  pushing for changes on Wall Street and fighting against business-as-usual at the Fed. The bank lobby is probably the most powerful interest group on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a strong and consistent voice urging lawmakers to protect the entire economy, rather than the banks. The very structure of the Fed makes it more responsive to Wall Street interests than those of the general public. Private-sector banks like Citigroup and Bank of America are shareholders in each of the Fed’s regional branches, while private-sector bank executives sit on the board of directors at each branch. Since the boards get to name the regional presidents, private-sector bank CEOs are given major power to name their own regulators. Regional presidents also rotate through positions on the Fed’s monetary policy board, making decisions to set interest rates.

The Fed’s institutional structure, and its reliance on mainstream economists overly acquiescent to the financial sector has helped fuel the boom-and-bust bubble economy, as the Real News explains in this video piece:

In addition to the turmoil surrounding the Bernanke appointment, the recent budget deficit projections have been receiving a lot of attention lately. By throwing around a lot of big numbers that end in "trillion," deficit hawks have created the impression of crisis where none exists. The government will have a $1.6 trillion shortfall this year, equal to about 11% of the U.S. economy. That’s the highest such number since the U.S. economy started to soar in the years after World War II, high enough to mobilize CNBC pundits to warn of financial apocalypse and a bankrupt U.S. government.

But as Robert Reich notes for Salon, it’s not really worth getting too worked up over the current deficit projections. In a recession, countries want to run a deficit: the government needs to fill hole created by the drop-off in private-sector economic activity. If the U.S. doesn’t run a big deficit, it will shed millions of additional jobs. And the country is nowhere near losing control of its currency. The federal debt stands at about 54% of our economic output right now, and is projected to reach 68% by 2019. But Reich notes that in 1945, the number was far higher: 120%. This number shrank dramatically over the next few years, not because of draconian cuts to government programs, but because the economy grew so much that the debt burden became less severe. We are nowhere near a crisis with the budget that compares to the current unemployment crisis, so pulling back spending right now doesn’t make much sense.

Bernanke has always argued that the Fed chair’s only duty is to control inflation. But managing the economy means not only attending to inflation, but making sure the true engine of economic growth—financially secure households—isn’t sacrificed to the short-term interests of a few Wall Street elites. Bernanke failed to block that economic predation early in his tenure as Fed Chairman. If Bernanke is going to be with us for another four years, President Obama needs to find other ways to restore our economic balance.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Audit: Stop Subsidizing Wall Street

6:46 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner rolled out his new Wall Street bailout plan on Monday and the progressive verdict is already in: This bailout doesn’t look much better than the last one. In fact, Geithner’s latest plan isn’t much different from several other flawed proposals policymakers have floated over the past year. At its core, Geithner’s program is just another attempt buy up "toxic assets" from banks at inflated prices.

If most major U.S. banks accepted current market prices for the bad, mortgage-related assets on their books, they would be insolvent. Geithner is trying to convince Wall Street that the assets are worth a lot more than everyone thinks they are, rather than deal with the fundamental problems of the assets and their owners. The plan unveiled on Monday involves a smorgasbord of guarantees for Wall Street investors, all part of an effort to sweeten the pot and convince them to buy toxic mortgage-related assets from troubled banks. Unfortunately, Geithner’s revisions create new problems without solving key previous dilemmas inherent in the plan.

In a post for Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall highlights a clip of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz Read the rest of this entry →

Weekly Audit: The Worst is Yet to Come

6:34 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

Last week’s passage of the economic stimulus bill marked the first major win for progressives on economic policy under President Barack Obama, but the hardest economic battles have yet to come. The fight against entrenched corporate interests and a global order that ignores the needy will likely be as long and arduous as the recession itself.

The stimulus package may be an absolutely essential step for fending off economic catastrophe, but it does nothing to overhaul the deeply flawed structure of our economic system. "In unleashing a flood of deficit spending and avoiding tax increases, the legislation didn’t threaten moneyed interests, didn’t alter the existing economic topography, and therefore didn’t attract the withering hostility from business groups that typically prevents ‘hope’ from becoming ‘change,’" David Sirota writes for Salon.

The Obama team seems to be considering nationalizing big, troubled banks temporarily, a prospect which was politically unthinkable just a few weeks back. Progressives have been pushing nationalization hard and it seems to be working. Several Republican Senators are supporting the idea, as temporary nationalization is already government policy for smaller banks that don’t employ massive lobbying teams.

But getting Read the rest of this entry →

Geithner’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Bailout

6:31 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

In this week’s Audit, we’re examining Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s thoroughly uninspiring bank bailout plan, which fails on almost every level. What’s more, some of the most insightful (and stinging) critiques of the proposal are coming from progressive media.

Robert Kuttner offers a strong analysis of Geithner’s strategy to salvage the banking industry in The American Prospect, noting that Geithner is explicitly avoiding the simplest and cheapest solution in favor of propping up the current Wall Street regime. The current plan is designed to support a financial architecture that has proven completely ineffective in maintaining the nation’s basic economic functions.

Geithner has thus far refused to nationalize the big, insolvent U.S. banks and give taxpayers ownership authority in exchange for their financial assistance. Instead, the new Treasury Secretary’s proposal devotes $1 trillion to writing insurance policies on bad mortgage assets to encourage private companies to buy those assets from troubled financial firms. This complicated strategy is designed to reduce the amount of money the government will have to pay to save the financial sector by bringing private enterprise into the bailout. However, the sheer convolutedness of the plan makes it Read the rest of this entry →